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Forever Neotonic – The Value Of Play In Keeping Your Youth

by Dr. Rick Kirschner on September 9, 2013

TheArtOfUsThis is our fourth and final blog post from the extraordinary improvisational actress and trainer, Shana Merlin.   Shana is the founder of Merlin Work, an improvisational training company in Austin, Texas.   She co-trains my material on persuasion with my daughter Aden Kirschner.  If you’re looking for training in communication and persuasion that appeals to a younger workforce, improvisational training delivers the goods.  Use our contact form to let us know you’re interested, and we’ll get back to you with the details.

Here’s Shana:

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I often hear from my improv performance students or workshop participants that they love class because a lot of our exercises and activities give them the ability to be like a kid again.  They feel more playful and imaginative. They get silly and giggly. Feeling child-like (and not childish) can be a great benefit of practicing the principals that make improvisation great, and it goes far beyond playing schoolyard games and making up fairy tale stories.

These play appreciating people are on to something deeper when they say improvising is like being a kid. It’s something I read about in the second half of the book Play by Stuart Brown. It’s the concept of neoteny: maintaining youthful characteristics throughout adulthood. I’m not talking about a keeping slender figure and eliminating crow’s feet. Neoteny enables your mind to remain “plastic” which Stuart Brown describes as “extended openness to change, and sustained curiosity, as well as the ability to readily incorporate new information.”
Your mind is continually growing and adapting. You remain inquisitive and try to figure things out. There’s exploration and discovery throughout adulthood and into old age. And this is something among primates that is unique to humans.

Brown compares humans to chimpanzees as they grow from being babies to adults. Chimp babies and human babies actually look a lot alike, with high rounded foreheads and big eyes. As chimpanzees get older they start to resemble our Neanderthal ancestors with their sloped forehead and heavy brow ridges. Their behavior starts to get more rigid along with their shape. They stop playing so much, have a strong social hierarchy, and they spend their time mostly in productive purposeful pursuits. Human babies, on the other hand, grow into adults that maintain a lot of the baby-like attributes, with round craniums, high foreheads, not too much hair, etc. And the human youth is spread out over 15 – 20 years. Humans retain a lot of child like qualities for their entire lives, especially if they are maintained.  The brain is able to repair itself after damage. We are able to adjust to new circumstances and adapt. We can keep learning and playing well into advanced age.

But what is the evolutionary benefit of all this neoteny? We are able to adapt to live in different environments and circumstances. We are more able to be creative. It enables us to have successful social groups and interaction. It would not be a stretch to say that neoteny is partially responsible for many of the great accomplishments of man: civilization and the arts. Of course both neoteny and maturity have their advantages and disadvantages. Brown writes, “Neoteny tends to be more flexible but vulnerable, while maturity is stronger but more rigid or brittle.”

And just like many things in life, there seems to be a use it or lose it aspect to neoteny. The way to hold on to your flexibility and creativity is to play.  According to Brown, “We are designed by nature and evolution to continue playing throughout life. Life-long play is central to our continued well being, adaptation, and social cohesiveness.” Almost weekly I read of some new study that says playing bridge (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/22/health/research/22brain.html) or doing crosswords (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/24650991/) helps extend and improve people’s quality of life.

For me, improvisation is my supplemental health insurance. I meet veteran improvisers who have been playing decades and they all seem so sharp, so alive, and so young.  I think the daily playing, socializing, and hearty laughing is a good regimen for health and longevity.

The bottom line is that play is good for you. And play can be a lot of things—sports, video games, playing with your kids, improv, or any creative pursuit. Just as long as you do it for fun. Play long and prosper.

Shana Merlin is the founder of the Merlin Works Institute for Improvisation. She has toured internationally as a performer, has trained with some of the top teachers in the field of improvisation including Keith Johnstone, and members of Second City, The Annoyance, IO, The Groundlings and more and has been winning awards as a teacher in Central Texas since 1995.   MerlinWorks has partnered with The Art Of Change Skills For Life to bring improvisational training in positive change, communication and persuasion to the next generation of business leaders.  Use the contact form at http://theartofchange.com to find out how you can bring this engaging style of training to your organization.

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